The Cleansing Craze- Do they work? Is a cleanse for you?

The other day I got an email from a distant “friend”. With no background in nutrition, science or health and fitness, she announced she is “running a cleanse”. Another acquaintance posted on facebook that he is 8 pounds down after one week of his cleanse, 17 more to go??  It seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry is either sponsoring a cleanse or participating in one.  So what has spurned this craze? Is it safe? What is the purpose of a cleanse? Do they work?

Let’s review the facts. Cleanses have been around for centuries. Cleanses began as a spiritual experience performed for religious reasons. They were always combined with religious practices as well, so that cleanses acted as a combined tool for creating spiritual purity. To this day, many religions such as Seventh Day Adventists and Muslims cleanse on a yearly basis. Yoga cleanses, or Ayurvedic cleanses, have been around for close to 4000 years. But, spiritual purity is not the reason for the ridiculous abundance of cleansing programs in this decade.  Aside from cleansing for spiritual reasons, the ONLY reason that cleanses are now super popular……. quick weight loss. Many of the cleanses are used as just one more magic pill, magic potion, magic diet… whatever is the QUICKEST way to lose weight.

Unfortunately, this is a major problem because cleanses never produce permanent weight loss.  Never. That’s why my acquaintance above is on his THIRD cleanse! He starves himself, loses weight, brags about it and then gains ALL the weight back, and more.  I can only speak for myself, but I would much rather be 5-10 pounds overweight and stay the same, than lose 20 pounds and then gain 30 back.  And that’s what cleanses may do if you don’t permanently accept the new eating habits you have practiced through the cleanse. But, no one can!  Nutritional deprivation from a low calorie diet or a cleanse always leads to eventual over eating in order to compensate for the deprivation. It’s evolution. It’s genetics. It’s hormonal, it’s physiologic.  In nature, periods of starvation are always compensated for with periods of gorging. That’s the way many wild animals live their lives, and it works well for them! Of course, a big fat polar bear does not care if it’s big and fat. It wants to be big and fat.  But, that is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve!  We are doing it for weight loss, right? Guess what?  For permanent weight loss, it just does not work.

This is because, when you cleanse…which is classically about undereating in some way…. not only do you lose fat, you also lose muscle. Research has shown that during a typical low calorie diet that produces 15 pounds of weight loss, up to 9- 10lbs of that weight loss is water and muscle tissue, not fat. Muscle loss means slow down of metabolism and subsequent weight gain.  And, the weight that you gain back is not good weight gain….. it’s pure FAT gain. Cleanses also create a hormonal tornado that compels you to over eat.  Hormones that signal hunger escalate, hormones that signal fullness diminish. It’s the way our bodies are designed to self regulate.

So, now you know the negatives about cleanses. Are there any positives? Sure! For one, cleanses teach you that you CAN do without processed foods, sugar or other foods that are not conducive to good health. Once you have success, if you are intent on being healthy and not just losing scale weight, you can incorporate these changes into your ongoing nutrition. Cleanses restart your taste buds. Butternut squash tastes phenomenal IF you can learn to appreciate its goodness and quality forever, and not just during the cleanse. Lastly, cleanses can help you determine your food tolerances or even allergies. Eliminating foods, then reintroducing them, is a great way for you to be aware and understand how these foods affect you.

There are many different types of cleanses. Some cleanses are merely a gimmicky name for clean eating. If the “cleanse” you are trying is full of veggies, fruits, healthy fats and lean highly digestible proteins, and this is opposite from how you are eating, then this may be a cleanse for you! And, ongoing, you should try and always eat like this. But, really, this is how we should be eating anyway. At the other extreme, cleanses that involve only minimal food choices, or involve no foods at all, are dangerous and counterproductive. I can’t ever recommend any of these.

If you take nothing else from this article but this… remember… cleanses never produce permanent weight loss. They may actually contribute to body fat gain in the long run. Is it worth the risk?